Puppy Imprinting

Most people have heard the term “imprinting” but they may not be aware that puppies can learn imprinting behavior.  However, it’s probable that we owe the modern dog’s domestication to the fact that puppies are able to be imprinted.

Puppy imprinting is the period during which a puppy forms a personal bond or relationship and “imprints” on someone or something.  This is the period when animals start to really recognize other animals outside themselves.  It’s also the time when communication really begins.  Baby chicks do this when they hatch.  They will follow the first person or thing they see and recognize it as their “mother.”  With puppies the process is a little more complicated due to the fact that puppies are born blind and deaf.  Puppies rely on their olfactory sense — their sense of smell and to some degree their sense of touch.  And the process occurs between the time they are three and eight weeks old.

Because of the dog’s special circumstances, the puppy imprinting stage can occur when the puppy is still with the mother but it also occurs at a time when the puppy is usually surrounded by humans, or at least one human who is taking care of the puppy’s needs.  As a result, puppies can imprint on a human.  In extreme cases, puppies can recognize humans as their family instead of dogs.  For the puppy, the human will be “mother” instead of its canine mother.  If a puppy only interacts with one human during this time, it is possible that the puppy will only be able to identify one person as a friendly human and not understand that other humans are also friendly.  The puppy won’t be able to generalize about all humans.

Fortunately, even if a puppy grows up only imprinting on humans, he will still be able to recognize other dogs as similar to himself.  However, he will most likely lack the canine communication skills to be able to interact with the other dogs, at least at first.  He will have to try to learn how to communicate with other dogs.

On the other hand, if a puppy grows up only with dogs and does not imprint on humans, he won’t be able to connect with humans properly.  Even with later socialization the puppy will not be able to “recognize” humans as friendly or have a close bond with them.

Of course, in most cases, puppies grow up learning that they have both canine and human “families.”  They imprint on both their canine mother and on the humans surrounding them and they are able to form close bonds in both worlds.

If dogs did not have the ability to imprint on humans and form close bonds in the human world, it seems unlikely that humans would have been able to domesticate them tens of thousands of years ago.

If you are raising a litter of puppies then you should try to spend as much time as possible with your puppies between the ages of three and eight weeks.  Pet them, play with them, talk to them.  Make sure you hold your puppies so they have plenty of opportunities to smell you.  You can also introduce them to visitors if they are very careful to take precautions against bringing germs to the puppy area.  Encourage your puppies to imprint on you and other members of your family.  You’ll be giving your puppies a great advantage with their puppy imprinting.

Proper puppy imprinting will go a very long way towards helping you when you and your puppies become old enough to start training them.

Mark Mansfield

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